Lethal black smoke was rapidly filling an apartment last July when a firefighting RIT team arrived on the scene to extinguish the flames. After forcing open the apartment door, the team split up to perform right- and left-hand searches for victims. One of the firefighters quickly became disoriented in the three-bedroom apartment, despite trying to follow the sound of his partner’s voice. He then spotted a faint blue glow from the “taillight” light-emitting diodes (LEDs) on his partner’s fire lantern at the end of the hallway. Following the light, he was reunited with his partner, who by then had found a 37-year-old mother and her two children. The two firefighters removed the victims to safety.

Technology advances are yielding new firefighting uses for handheld flashlights and enabling firefighters to use lights under even the most hazardous conditions. Handheld flashlights and lanterns have long been staples of the firefighting profession. The comprehensive lines of flashlights available today have become essential tools for responding to the rigorous demands of firefighting-from rechargeable lanterns that can illuminate smoke-filled rooms to lightweight personal lights that can be clipped on turnout gear for easy, hands-free use.

But as the example above illustrates, technology innovations are yielding a growing number of applications for what was once considered a simple lighting tool. In addition to traditional lighting uses, today’s flashlights are being used for a variety of other purposes, including helping rapid intervention team (RIT) members signal one another in dark, smoke-filled conditions; marking entry and exit points in buildings and other structures; and assisting in confined space and other hazardous rescues.

Advances in battery and bulb technology also are taking flashlights to new levels, establishing even higher benchmarks in rechargeability and substantially reducing a flashlight’s size and weight, leading to increased portability. Also, continuing safety enhancements allow professionals to use lighting equipment under hazardous conditions in which they couldn’t be used previously, such as in industrial fires where flammable substances are often present.

Below are some examples of evolving flashlight features and technology and how they are leading to new applications to meet the complex needs of firefighters.


Today’s portable lanterns equipped with dual ultrabright taillight LEDs do double duty-not only are these lightweight, water-resistant units big on power, they also enable firefighters to identify and locate other team members as they travel through dimly lit, smoke-filled rooms, regardless of the directon in which the light beam is pointed. They also permit firefighters to signal for help when needed (photo 1).

Photos courtesy of Streamlight, Inc.

Some feature high-intensity halogen bi-pin bulbs and dual LEDs that can be programmed to produce a range of lighting combinations, including halogen-only, LED-only, or combined halogen/LED lights, all with steady or blinking modes. With an industrial-strength thermoplastic housing, they are virtually indestructible (photo 2).

Lanterns equipped with dual taillights also serve as ideal markers for delineating room doorways, stairwells, landings, escape routes, and other egress points in a burning structure.


Because flashlights may be a source of ignition in the presence of fire or ignitable gases or liquids, manufacturers have evolved flashlight design in recent years to meet rigorous safety ratings, enabling firefighters to use their flashlights in a variety of dangerous conditions. Approved flashlights are marked with the specific hazardous locations in which they can be used. Underwriters Laboratories Inc. (UL) and Factory Mutual Research Corporation (FM) are two independent, nonprofit organizations that test and certify flashlights to well-established safety standards. These safety standards are based on the approval agencies’ experience, research, testing, and input of industry experts. Organizations such as American National Standards Institute (ANSI) and the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) also contribute important guidelines.

Safety ratings are based on the conditions of specified hazardous locations, as defined by the National Electrical Code (NEC) using the following four terms: Class, Division, Group, and Temperature Code.

Class indicates the possibility of an explosive atmosphere. Class I indicates possible presence of flammable gases, vapors, or liquids, such as in a propane tank; Class II indicates the possible presence of combustible dusts; and Class III indicates the possibility of ignitable fibers and flyings (airborne metal shavings), such as in a manufacturing facility.

The Division indicates the likelihood that an explosive atmosphere is present when equipment is operating. Division 1 is an environment where an explosive atmosphere is likely to exist under normal operating conditions, such as inside an oil or a gasoline tank or in certain confined spaces. Division 2 designates an environment where an explosive atmosphere is not likely to exist under normal operating conditions, such as at a manufacturing facility where a flammable substance, such as gasoline, is flowing through pipes. In this instance, the explosive material is present only if something goes wrong, such as a burst pipe.


A confined space rescue demands the safest, most reliable professional flashlight available. When working in confined spaces, firefighters typically choose flashlights with the maximum candlepower-the measurement of the brightest spot in the focused beam of a flashlight. Typically, flashlights approved for use in Division 2 carry a non-incendive rating and could generate approximately 10,000 candlepower, although the range could be lower or even higher in some cases. By selecting a flashlight rated for Division 2, firefighters can be assured they are getting the maximum brightness in a flashlight that is nonincendive and has limited sparking potential. Of course, if a working environment can be defined as Division 2, then it makes sense to select the most powerful light available.

Flashlights rated for Division 1 use are usually rated intrinsically safe, normally are considerably less bright, and may have as little as 1,000 candlepower. There is no question that performance is sacrificed when working in a Division 1 situation, but responders can still choose a light that provides the maximum brightness for the application.


For maximum performance, today’s quality flashlights employ halogen, krypton, or xenon bulbs for brighter, sharper beams. Some flashlight designs provide a spot focus for direct lighting and a flood beam for larger areas. Lights are also available that contain built-in, backup filaments or spare bulbs for easy replacement if one burns out. Another consideration when selecting a flashlight is that the operating temperature of the bulbs be nonincendive. Flashlights are temperature-rated from T1 (less than or equal to 450°C) to T6 (less than or equal to 85°C), and the flashlight selected should depend on the temperature class range limitations based on the ignition characteristics of the substances likely to be encountered.

The alternative to filament-based bulbs are LEDs, which have elevated flashlights to a new level; LEDs shine longer, are more durable, and are virtually unbreakable. Battery-saving LEDs have an almost infinite life-from 10,000 up to 100,000 hours-ensuring continuous illumination during long periods of extended use, without sacrificing brightness. Although standard LEDs are less bright than conventional bulbs, super high flux LEDs offer the long life and reliability of an LED with the brightness and range of a conventional bulb-up to 10 times brighter than a standard high-intensity LED.

Manufacturers have also blazed new trails in the areas of the size and shape of LED flashlights. Lightweight penlights feature powerful LED bulbs for maximum portability and shining light on hard-to-reach locations. These lights also come with flexible cable attachments, making them handy tools for investigators and others who need to snake a light into tight locations.

Some lights also feature LED/incandescent hybrid combinations, enabling firefighters to choose between a high-power xenon bulb and a long-lasting LED with a flick of a switch-the incandescent mode when a high-intensity light is needed and the LED mode when the flashlight will be used for an extended time. Another benefit of LED/incandescent technology is the two-way fail-safe LED illumination that provides emergency backup lighting. Once the incandescent bulb goes dim because of low batteries, firefighters can extend many of these lights’ runtime by a minimum of one hour by switching the flashlight to LED mode. Even after the incandescent bulb burns out completely, the LEDs will still be operational for up to 100,000 hours.


Firefighters can be sure that their flashlight is fully operational at all times by selecting a rechargeable flashlight equipped with nickel-cadmium power cells or a nickel metal hydride battery. In most models, these heavy-duty batteries can be recharged up to 1,000 times and are usually fully charged within 10 hours. A rechargeable flashlight can be stored in its charger overnight, eliminating the uncertainty that comes with using disposable batteries.

Some rechargeable lights offer fast-charge options that provide a fully charged light in just one to two hours, as opposed to 10, enabling lights to quickly be returned to the field for duty. Another charging option is one that allows firefighters to charge the flashlight in a truck or other vehicle between uses. This feature enhances reliability of a light, ensuring that it’s always ready to go, eliminating the possibility of being without light on a fire scene.


It’s not unusual for a flashlight to be knocked around, dropped several feet, or even run over during a typical firefighter’s workweek. Flashlights with nonconductive polymer housing or machined aluminum casing are tough enough to withstand this type of abuse, extending the life of flashlights and ensuring the quality of the original investment. True professional lights have even been known to withstand temperatures of up to 500°F and have been submerged in mud or water for several days with minimal damage. Additional features to consider are waterproof casing and O-ring seals that keep moisture out of the flashlight (photo 3).

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Lighting technology will continue to evolve with time and user demand, which will result in even more applications specific to firefighting uses. There will also be further enhancements in flashlight runtimes, weight, and portability. As such, flashlights will become increasingly vital tools for a wide variety of firefighting purposes and reasons. Like the professionals who use them, these lights will always be ready to go the distance in service in one of the world’s most complex, challenging, and demanding jobs-firefighting.

ALLEN LANCE is the director of sales-public safety division for Streamlight, Inc., an industrial flashlight manufacturer in Eagleville, Pennsylvania.

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